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Health & Parenting

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Deadly Diet: School Lunches Flunk Out

A national wellness campaign is working to take junk food out of schools, and put nutrition back in.

Deadly Diet: Kids' Health at Risk continued...

In May, the campaign to "de-junk" school menus got a boost from the former "snacker-in-chief," Bill Clinton, whose love for fries and greasy food contributed to his own cardiac bypass surgery in 2004.

The Alliance for a Healthier Generation -- a joint initiative of the William J. Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association -- worked with representatives of leading beverage manufacturers to stop nearly all sales of sugary soft drinks in the nation's public schools. Under new guidelines, only lower-calorie and nutritious beverages will be sold to schools.

"It's a great place to start," says McAllister. "I'm very encouraged. But there's so much more we have to do, such as dramatically improving the quality of the food schools offer at lunchtime."

So Long, Snickers; Farewell, Fries

The responsibility for making sure that happens often falls squarely on the shoulders of parents, says Dabney, who spent the next several years lobbying -- often against resistance from principals, superintendents, and school boards -- for change in the way Austin's public schools fed their children.

Dabney ultimately became the parent advisory committee chair for Austin's School Health Advisory Council (SHAC), which worked with schools to restock vending machines with healthier foods and beverages, and to implement a wellness policy banning booster club food sales. No longer competing with vending-machine junk food, the school's food service program was able to cut back drastically on the greasy pizzas and fries that once dominated the a la carte line.

These changes haven't been easy, says Dabney.

"Parents have to be proactive here," she says. "The schools have been doing this for so long, and they really have their plates full -- no pun intended. But if we can change how they think about children's nutrition, health, and academics, we'll change the kinds of decisions they make. That's what we've seen in Austin."

Starting in July, parents seeking to replace Tater Tots with tomatoes at school have a new weapon: the Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act. This law requires that all schools participating in the federal School Lunch Program -- essentially, all public schools -- develop a wellness policy focused on the provision of healthy foods.

"It's a brand new day," says Julia Lear, director of the Center for Health and Health Care in Schools at George Washington University. "It opens a big door to every parent who's been concerned about too many french fries."

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